Column: time for a middle path to teachers’ contract

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Deadlock won’t be solved by more posturing and playing politics

By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com

It’s Monday afternoon, and I don’t have the slightest idea of what to write.

Another manifesto from the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District popped into my email box Friday afternoon, which to be honest was not a lot different from the manifesto from the Unionville Chadds Ford Education Association a week or so earlier.

Basically, both said “we’re being reasonable and really want a deal, the other guys aren’t.”

One of the comments I get from readers the most often is praise for our coverage of the Unionville schools, but I’ll be honest, I don’t know what the heck to write about this development this afternoon.

Here’s the salient facts, for those of you who haven’t been keeping up: the district and the teachers have gone some 14 months without a contract and until June, it looked like slow steady progress toward a deal was being made. Now, if anything, the two sides appear further apart and both sides are pointing fingers at the other, as we sit three weeks from the first day of the new school year.

You’ll excuse me if I feel a bit like I’m dealing with my 10-year-old twins, instead of a group of educated, intelligent grownups.

Look, I understand that those negotiating are dealing with a wide range of issues — and opinions on their respective sides. From speaking with both sides throughout this drawn-out process, I know that both sides have folks hell-bent-for-leather to draw-a-line-in-the-sand (and they say folks don’t know how to use cliches anymore) and not compromise.

As we watch the financial markets crater this week, it seems likely we’ve all gotten a sense of the benefits of “no compromise” in the public arena. I’m hoping that it’s a lesson not lost on folks here.

Being in the unique situation of being a district parent and taxpayer in addition to having to regularly write about this ongoing process, aside from talking to everyone directly involved, I talk to a lot of parents and residents, stopping for coffee at The Landhope, or buying food at SuperFresh or at some local sporting or scouting event.

They’ll ask me what I think and I get about four words in when they usually cut me off.

“They’re acting like a bunch of spoiled kids. Somebody ought to send them to their rooms and take away their Nintendo DSs,” they say about both sides, or words to that effect, many of which can’t be used in a family publication.

There’s an anger here, at least equal to that seen after the Unionville High School renovation bond referendum fiasco. Talking to people, the sense is that the teachers are greedy while the school board is now seen as overly focused on cutting spending and making political points. While that’s not my personal opinion, it is a growing perception of both sides among the public and parents.

Folks aren’t dumb, when both sides claim to want deal but talks do nothing but go backward, the truth becomes evident. You have to judge people not by their words, but by their actions. And the actions here speak for themselves.

I’m not suggesting that the issues here are easy to solve, they’re not. But if both sides were as passionate as they claim about getting a deal done, it would be done already.

If I had all of the numbers — the real numbers, not the ones issued by both sides for public relations purposes — running out to 2015, plus some sit-down time in Harrisburg to get a sense of where the real pension numbers are headed (let’s remember it was those same estimates being used now to claim financial Armageddon that made it possible for school boards and the legislatures to drastically cut their pension contributions starting 2001) and what the legislature really is going to do about them, I probably could put together a three-year deal that no one would like, but everyone — taxpayers, parents, teachers and so on — could live with.

But — and maybe this is the hold up — it wouldn’t be a model contract for the Pennsylvania State Education Association (the state teachers’ union) to point to and it probably wouldn’t get any school board members invited to speak at the local Tea Party rally.

The frame would be something like this: the teachers have to compromise on salary and health care. The district has compromise on work rules, seniority and health care. You’ll note I dinged them both of health care, as neither side seems to have put forth a reasonable plan there; the teachers don’t want to accept the real impact of cost increases, while the board wants to expose teachers and their families to drastically higher financial risk.

And as many have suggested, kick out the hired help: ditch the high-priced school board labor attorney and state union rep. At this point, no one without skin in the game should be in the room.

I suspect there are any number of people in the community who could come up with the same basic formula, by the way.

As was the case in 2007 in the high school renovation drama, no one seems inclined to take the middle road and there seems to be a lot of “my way, or the highway” chest thumping. Unionville still hasn’t recovered from that mistake and may not for quite some time.

That can’t happen again, both for the sake of the schools and for the larger community, where interest groups are increasingly being pitted against each other.

A deal needs to get done, not just a deal for a deal’s sake, but a tough, but truly fair one that balances the needs of teachers, students, their parents and the taxpaying public at large.

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52 Comments

  1. Upride says:

    I think we all need to remember that these people are not just greedy teachers wanting more money. Rather these teachers are the ones who guide and help the students everyday and make unionville chadds ford one of the top school districts in PA. These teachers take their lunch breaks and an hour or so before and after school to assists your kids in their studies. They are guiding the children, your children, in the right direction. To become outstanding young men and women. So the teachers are asking for quite a bit, wouldn’t you? They don’t want to disagree for fun, they do it because they, the union, as a whole believe that they deserve it. Despite what some might think the teachers in UCFSD are some of the best teachers, parents, listeners, and most importantly friends that your kids, the future generation, will come upon.
    Thanks,
    Proud UHS student

  2. Sue says:

    Kristen,

    It sounds like you are in a more-than-difficult situation, and I did not mean to offend anyone by suggesting $40 is a small amount. I’m sorry if I offended you and others. I was merely speaking from our own experience, and we are not well off by any means. My husband makes well below the county average of 80 something a year. We drive used cars and live in a 50-year-old house that is in need of great repairs that we can’t afford right now. I have gone from a full-time mom to working part-time to make ends meet in this difficult economy. Most of us feel it . . .although in different ways.

    My point is, we are receiving a top-notch education that would only be comparable to an expensive private school. We could not afford $20-30 thousand a year for that kind of education. We sacrifice and save to live in this district so our kids can have this education. If I am able to afford a computer, Internet access, and my instant coffee every morning (never bought a latte at Starbucks), then I can afford an extra $40 a year for my children’s education.

    It is important to settle the contract so we can maintain the high-performance in this district.

  3. Kristin Hoover says:

    Dear SteveW and Sue: I am happy that the impact of the economy has not hit you. I hope it never does. For those of us who have been hit by the economy, it was a ton of bricks on all our soft tissue and on our innocent children, as well. It is a saga that continues. It did not have to do with our work ethic, our college degrees, our skill sets, our willingness to take less or do more or our willingness to settle for any kind of job. It had to do with energy prices, wars that weren’t paid for and the desire to maximize shareholder profits no matter what. The check and balance system stopped working. Research and innovation take money from the bottom line so they cut it. Don’t dare to be over 50 now! To trivialize what people are facing by explaining that it is only a hundred bucks or 40 bucks or really trivialize it by the latte we weren’t getting anyway is unbelievably offensive. Starbucks has been closing stores and hurting for a while now. Some of us never were in the latte class. People like me have lived here almost two decades now. I moved here long before I had a child because it was the best house I could afford and still be able to put some money aside for retirement and emergencies.

    I am so glad you brought up the statistics. We can always banter back and forth about which ones to use and from what years. Sometimes, we even forget what statistics are….mathematical representations of data that help us analyze the probability of whether associations occur based on chance alone. Statistics are based on data which are simply things we can count (sample sets) and we extrapolate to those we cannot count. There are scary stats in the 13.1 million people unemployed and 1 in 7 being on food stamps across America. There are the 2% of children in Unionville Chadds Ford who receive free or reduced price lunches (and I hope my kid does not become one of them).

    But statistics do not measure the feeling you have when you have to tell your family you no longer have a job. They don’t measure the conversations at the Pocopson Post Office about two or three people a week coming in over the last couple of years who have lost a job or had it happen within the family. Unemployment “statistics” don’t even measure the whole picture of those who are unemployed….they don’t measure the people who don’t have job and aren’t collecting benefits. They don’t measure the ones who are now living with parents and with their help. They don’t measure the people who are working in jobs vastly different than their skill levels or those who invested money/time in retraining and then still couldn’t find a job. Chester County’s Food Cupboards were bare this year, but that probably won’t get picked up in a widely quoted statistic.

    I want the teachers contract to be settled and I am tired of people hurting while politics at all levels gets more polarized, nasty and stalemated. We need to work together and seek solutions….perhaps not the best ones possible or the one that one side or the other wants, but a solution. If there is one thing I have learned over the last few years, it is the truth of the old saying that “half a loaf is better than none.”

  4. Steve W. says:

    Keith, we could go back and forth on all these issues plus many more and its not going to make a difference on your stance with the teacher contract. I hope in the coming weeks, as was stated at last night’s board meeting, your team and the teacher’s team meet and meet often. The only way to get it done is to take the time to do it and actually negotiate with equal give and take…AKA COMPROMISE!!!

    Hopefully the contract gets done soon and when it does I challenge the board to think to the future and get creative with ways to generate and save money for the district without running up huge bills for studies and surveys. For example: tuition students, corporate naming rights and green technology (I think it’s about time we look at getting off the grid and creating our own energy) to name a few. Lets think ahead so other districts don’t leave us behind.

    • Keith Knauss says:

      Steve W.,
      .
      Thanks for taking time to have a conversation. I want to comment on a few of your recommendations.
      .
      meet and meet often
      When the two negotiating parties are far apart it is pointless to meet frequently. It takes time for the demonstrations, the misleading articles, the baseless unfair labor practice filing, the refusal to volunteer, the threat of a strike, the groundless grievance, Fact Finding and post cards to play out. These are standard union tactics that just delay a settlement.
      .
      COMPROMISE!!
      I think you would agree that there is a point beyond which the Board should not compromise. So far, the Board has not had an offer that is better than the status quo even considering the negative consequences of labor action under the status quo. It is so tempting to sign an unreasonable contract that gives us labor peace and a satisfied parent base in the short term. However, I won’t support a contract that forces program cuts and employee furloughs in the long term just to have short term peace.
      .
      huge bills for studies and surveys
      I know of no bill for a survey. The outsourcing studies we did for transportation, building & grounds, and food services resulted in savings well in excess of the costs.
      .
      tuition students, corporate naming rights and green technology
      They have all be explored.

  5. footballdad says:

    A family of four spends $100+ for a dinner out at Outback. One less dinner once a year to end this contract issue? School Board, let’s get it finished!

  6. Keith Knauss says:

    Hi SteveW,
    .
    While adjusting the matrix monthly as the workforce composition changes and then recalculating the 10 variations of offers under discussion may give more accurate numbers, the numbers using the original matrix are sufficient for decision making. If they weren’t don’t you think the Fact Finder would have required both the union and the district to use a different matrix?
    .
    As for the unemployment statistics I think you’ll find the unemployment rate went from 3% in 2007 to the most recent 6.4%. Certainly it’s better than most areas, but that’s no comfort for my neighbors that are out of a job. As for median income, we do live in a well-off district, but I have trouble with the concept that teachers should be paid relative to the median income of the district. There are other better measures to determine whether an offer is reasonable. See the July negotiations update.
    http://www.ucfsd.org/nn/071511nn.pdf
    .
    There is about an $800,000 dollar difference between the district’s offer and the union’s offer in the last year of the contract. This would equate to a yearly bill of $100 extra for each of the district’s approximate 8,000 households. This extra $100, of course, is paid each year forever – teacher compensation will never go down because of status quo legislation.
    .
    The question then becomes, “How do I evaluate the cost of my decision if I’ve got to pay an extra $100 over multiple years?” The question can be answered by finding the cost of an annuity that pays out $100 each year forever. But let’s shorten the period to as long as you are in your house – say 25 years. The present value of a $100 annuity for 25 years is about $2,000. Thus, while some might say, “give the teachers what they want, it’s only an extra $100”, it’s really a $2,000 decision; not a $100 decision. Let’s remember the same “it’s only a latte a weeK” reasoning was used by the prior board to justify the HS project and we know how well that went over with the electorate.
    .

  7. Sue says:

    I’m echoing Steve’s request here: What would the actual tax increase be per household? I had heard it was around $40 a year. It costs more than that for a tank of gas! As evidenced by parents at the board meeting last night, I think many, if not most, parents would pay $40 more a year for an education in this district. Many of us have moved from lower-performing districts, paying higher housing prices and tax bills to be in this outstanding district. Many of us would be sending our kids to private schools if it weren’t for the oustanding performance in the UCFSD. $40 more a year? I would gladly pay it.

  8. Steve W. says:

    Thank you for answering my questions Keith. I do have a few additional comments in response to your posting. First, you say “…it is burdensome to recalculate the financials each time a position is created or eliminated or one employee is replaced with another at a different salary level.” While agree this might be the case, I feel that it is your responsibility to take on this burden in the interest of getting the numbers as correct as possible. The 2010-2011 school year is over so why would you still be using the 333 FTE number? I hope as you negotiate now you are using the more accurate number which you claim to be around 323. To me this makes the most sense. Second, you continue to argue the point of current economic times and how this has played into current negotiations. While I agree the current economic times are bad (insert blame on banks and politicians here) my sense is that our community (Chester Co.) isn’t being hit as hard as you claim. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics our county has seen a drop in unemployment within the past year from 6.9% to 6.4%. This is the third lowest rate in the state. Also, the median household income according to the U.S. Census Bureau is the highest in the state at just over $81,000 (PA median is just under $50,000). All that being said, I think our community is doing well all things considered. What I would like to know is what would the actual dollar amount increase be to a taxpayer in the district if you agreed to the associations current salary offer? I’ve heard lots of numbers here but have yet to see the board put out an actual dollar amount. You always seem to speak in percentages and I would like to see an actual dollar amount. I’ve heard a figure as low as $15 to as high as $40 in terms of a dollar increase to a tax bill. Split the difference and call it $27.50 and I would think the public might be surprised to see the actual dollar amount be that low. Again, thank you for your response to my thoughts/questions. I’m just trying to make sense of the current labor stalemate.

    • MythBuster says:

      Interesting presentation. Curious regarding a few aspects of the financial data used in the irrefutable math. Is the personnel expense depicted at $56M100% attributable to union staff? What has been the annual rev growth rate over the last 5, 10, 15 years? More statistical observations than “last year” would be telling and inflation itself is higher than 2% in many cases. A projection that uses 2% rev growth and 3% expense growth seems over simplistic. Historical data would be a better indicator, rather than cherry picking an expense rate higher than a growth rate.

      I assume folks would understanding that any proposal with annual adjustments over time that equate to less than the anticipated inflation rate could be viewed by teachers as a pay cut.

      Perhaps status quo with an annual inflation adjustment would be accepted by both parties.

      Or perhaps tie salaries directly to revenue(similar to the NFL).

  9. Keith Knauss says:

    SteveW,
    .
    Here are the answers to your questions:
    First, in your salary proposal to the teachers what is the total employee number that you are using to develop your salary schedule?
    The financials used at the negotiations table are done using the number of full-time employees (FTE) present at the time bargaining begin. In our case it was 333.1. I don’t have the current exact number, but it is somewhere around 323 FTE. By convention the financials remain constant during negotiations. Both the District and the union used 333.1 when testifying and submitting the financials to the Fact Finder. Why? First, it is burdensome to recalculate the financials each time a position is created or eliminated or one employee is replace with another at a different salary level. Second, it deters the District from claiming “we’re poor” if the head count goes up and union from claiming “there’s extra money” if the head count goes down. In the current situation the head count went down, but that doesn’t mean there is extra money to settle a contract. The head count went down to balance the budget in a difficult economic environment.
    .
    Shouldn’t any salary proposal be based on the actual number of people you plan on paying?
    Yes. The District runs the financials four ways. One, we compute the financials described above for the negotiations table conversation. Two, we compute the compensation increase for the average teacher so members of the community can compare their compensation increases to the teachers’. These are the financials the public sees and are the virtually the same regardless of the headcount. Three, we compute the cost to the District excluding the state’s 50% reimbursement for PSERS and FICA to determine whether the percentage increase is near the Act 1 Index. Four, when we get close to an agreement Mr. Cochran uses a complex program that forecasts the budget for the next 5 years using the current and projected head count.
    .
    Second, in past negotiations with the teacher’s union, have previous school boards used PSERS, FICA, health care, tuition, workers comp, etc. when creating their salary offer?
    I can only speak for the 2003-2008 contract when I was on the negotiations team. Yes, all the items mentioned above were included. Mr. Hellrung was on the negotiations team for the 2000-03 contract. I’ll ask him if he recalls how the financials were done then.
    .
    It seems to me that salary offers should be just that, salary and salary alone.
    I strongly disagree. Our budget is based on every dollar spent on compensation; not just salary. Salary comprises about 50% of our $70M budget. Benefits are about another 20%. We can’t ignore that 20%.
    .
    Third, it seems to me that you were the closest you’ve been to a settlement back in June/July, why would the school board reintroduce issues such as seniority language, work rules, etc. when those issues were supposedly off the table?
    We were not close in June/July. The District has a set dollar amount for the contract to make it economically sustainable. In a nutshell, we can’t afford the union’s salary requests AND continue with the same expensive health care plan. It’s one or the other; not both. The District was extending an almost unaffordable offer into July even when we knew that we were foregoing health care savings every month a contract was not signed. When it became apparent in July that no settlement was in sight, we reset our offer (salary, benefits and work rules) to conform with the then current economic realities.
    .
    It’s no secret that the economy has gone further south since we reset our offer in July. Last week the Fed committed to near zero interest rates into 2013 indicating a weak economy over that period. That signals trouble for our community and, most likely, low Act 1 Indexes over the same period.
    .
    Steve W., I hope this answers your questions. If not, let me now what clarification is needed.

  10. Keith Knauss says:

    I’d like to make a point about the supposed benefits of a PSERS reserve fund. I hear the argument that the Board was negligent in not creating a PSERS reserve fund years ago to soften the effect of sharply increasing contribution rates.
    .
    Readers can slog through the details below, but any PSERS savings fund we might have accumulated, say $4M, is insignificant compared to the $80M bill that is due over the next 25 years. Would it have helped? Sure, but it wouldn’t have had a significant effect on either our budget decisions or our contract negotiations.
    .
    Details:
    1. Let’s look at the size of the problem. I’m going to use round numbers, but you can see the details of the rate increase projection here.
    http://www.psers.state.pa.us/content/employer/contributions.pdf
    (Remember that these are actuarial projections out 30 years and are subject to change. But, they are the best we have.).
    The District contribution rate goes from 8% of salary to a projected 27% of salary in a matter of a few years and doesn’t come down to our current level until 2039. Let’s assume our payroll stays constant at the current $35M per year and the state continues to reimburse us for half of contributions . The contribution needed from local RE taxes over that period is in excess of $80M.
    .
    2. The PSERS funding “problem” was only evident in 2008 when the fund had a -26% market return. At that time the actuaries warned that large increases in the contribution rates would be necessary. Let’s suppose the board at that time took immediate action and put $1M each year into a PSERS reserve fund. The fund balance would reach $4M by 2011.

    • JustAMom says:

      This seems like a re-statement of the canned response on PSERS. What about actually trying to answer the questions SteveW asked?

  11. Steve W. says:

    While I can appreciate everyone’s thoughts and comments, I do have a few questions for Keith and Frank. First, in your salary proposal to the teachers what is the total employee number that you are using to develop your salary schedule? It is my understanding that the number you’re using is outdated and not based on the current number of teachers. Shouldn’t any salary proposal be based on the actual number of people you plan on paying? If you are not using the most up to date number I’d like to know why. Second, in past negotiations with the teacher’s union, have previous school boards used PSERS, FICA, health care, tuition, workers comp, etc. when creating their salary offer? It seems to me that salary offers should be just that, salary and salary alone. Third, it seems to me that you were the closest you’ve been to a settlement back in June/July, why would the school board reintroduce issues such as seniority language, work rules, etc. when those issues were supposedly off the table? Thank you for any reply you can offer to my questions.

    • JustAMom says:

      These seem like good questions. They seem like simple and straightforward questions. Why can’t Keith or Frank or one of the seven others respond to these questions?

  12. Ray Farrell says:

    Observing,

    Thanks for making the great point that  all this “teasonable tone” is missing; that the Fact Finder’s report is  the compromise ending point, not a starting point for negotiations.

    JustAMom,

    Thanks for berating Paul the outsider from NY, I agree. I was hoping your next sentence would equally berate and “take to task” the PSEA outsiders from Harrisburg who come into our school district every contract cycle to reek havoc on our students, parents, teachers, taxpayers, and school board.

    Furthermore I see no progress has been made. How come I don’t see any PSEA union officials commenting on this blog with their “reasonably toned” suggestions as we torment and do back-flips?

    Ray Farrell
    Pocopson, PA

    • JustAMom says:

      I do not want to berate anybody. I do not want to watch anybody else do it. I tried to make my point to the gentleman from NY in a respectful manner. I would apologize to him if I did not achieve that goal. Disagreement; not disrespect.

      You and I are not in a position to know whether any progress has been made. My guess is that progress is being made in the tone of things and the major indicator of progress is that the teachers appeared not to vote to strike on Tuesday.

      Anti-union comments are not helpful. Please help keep things positive and informative. I would like to hear from teachers or union reps about their position.

  13. Keith Knauss says:

    Mike,
    .
    I enjoyed our face-to-face spirited conversation in the golf shop today. I believe your newspaper can help inform the public and I appreciate that.
    .
    A suggestion – create an article where we can address one issue at a time and start with the $10,000 to $30,000 out of network health care limit. The health care issue is probably the easiest to address. If we try to address health care, costing and PSERS at the same time we’ll have posting overload, entanglement and confusion.

  14. paul henck says:

    mike,bravo for a well written and insightful article[ time for a middle path…] , i can definately appreciate your comparison of politicians to children, as here in NY a few years back our state legislature were bickering like a bunch of spoiled brats .It seems as if this behavior has become the norm for our elected officials.Maybe the parties in your column should heed your words. Keep up the good work,paul

    • JustAMom says:

      Dear Paul: Kudos to Mike for his excellent coverage of this whole situation. I think the entire Unionville Times is a great asset to the community. This is a much better paper than the two local print versions in the area. Mike makes liquor license applications, deer hunts and school lunch increases interesting….this is clearly a gift and he seems to have found his niche. For that, our community is greatly improved.

      People like me who live here in Unionville are engaged in an effort to tone down the language, avert a strike, obtain a reasonable settlement and allow our kids an opportunity to go back to school for the educational experience that we all moved here to provide.

      We are a close-knit community and we value our teachers and our school board members as individuals even though sometimes their actions either individually or collectively sometimes miss the mark. When they do, we know that they are simply frustrated and never doubt their decency, good hearts or intentions. Perhaps you might then see how offensive it is for somebody from out-of-state to engage in name calling at this juncture. I have no idea where you live in NY, but I would not dream of going to your local paper and posting a similar comment. I would also take to task anybody else locally who thinks that this is a good approach. We are really trying hard to keep calm and reason upper most henceforth until we reach a settlement. We have made progress since Mike wrote his posting. Please respect that. I do.

      • paul henck says:

        Dear Just a mom, first off I apologize if anyone was offended by my comments it. My only intent was to show my appreciation for a well written and intelligent article. As an “outsider”, I would not consider getting involved in your local happenings.That being said, I really dont think my “name calling’ was all that different from a lot of the letters [including Mikes article]. I also feel that teachers are one of our best hopes for the future and your town is not alone in the assault on our education system,for that I place blame on wall street and our elected officials [DC in particular]. In closing,I sincerely hope your towns conflict comes to an amicable resolution. Good luck,Paul

  15. Ray Farrell says:

    JustAMom,

    No offense but if you want to help find a solution and have more credibility, you might want to come out of the shadows of your anonymous screen name.

    Just a suggestion.

    Come on in…the waters fine.

    Ray Farrell
    Pocopson, PA

    • JustAMom says:

      What difference does it make who I am? I can hardly think of anything less important toward obtaining a fair solution to this problem. I’m nobody in this whole process. I have some questions and some ideas. I just want peace in my community and a solution that does not result in short or long-term damage to the school district, the students, the teachers or the taxpayers. Mike has my e-mail address and if I can do anything to help, he should let me know.

  16. TaxPayer says:

    The School District and the Teachers’ Union should be able to (quickly) agree on the cost for each teacher to step in the door today: salary, health care, pension, tuition support, the District’s share of FICA and FICM, paid days off, etc. Lay this out in a disaggregated way – line item by line item (and by [redacted name] teacher if necessary). It then becomes a “simple” calculation to determine the total cost for the teaching staff for each of the next several years by applying the appropriate escalation factor to each line item.

    But that’s the rub you say. We can’t agree on the factors or who will pay what portion of each.

    By breaking out all the key factors that are open to debate into small pieces, it’s easier to see the year-over-year impact of a change. Most importantly, there is one set of numbers for all (including the taxpayers) and the board and union can focus on the key issues rather than broad generalizations.

    Regarding health care: there are a myriad of options available for co-pays, coverages, out-of-pocket maximums, premiums, etc. The healthiest employees will probably want the lowest premium, others will elect to pay more in premium to reduce co-pays or for specific coverage. The plan that is best for most may have been sorted out, but I don’t know that from the information presented (have the teachers been asked what they want?).

    Regarding pension plan contributions: the shortfall from previous years is a real expense, but it appears that it was created by school board decisions to underpay the actuarially appropriate amounts each year (and it doesn’t really matter if the legislature enabled these decisions). Including this accrued District liability as part of teachers’ compensation for the upcoming years doesn’t make sense to me – this is a commitment from years past that the teachers, in good faith, expected the District to fund. Today’s teachers should not be held financially responsible for this decision by past boards. The consequence of this (poor) decision unfortunately, but properly, falls on the taxpayers who elect board members. Again, it’s a real expense and the District has to find the money, but not solely from the teachers. Should there be changes in pension plan benefits/payouts? Perhaps – but that’s a different discussion.

    The Aug 5 Board Response includes the statement that “In calculating the employee’s compensation amounts, the District appropriately includes the full amount contributed on behalf of the employee – both the portion paid by the District and the portion paid by the State.” While an accurate portrayal of the overall compensation for a teacher, it is not an accurate portrayal of that compensation costs borne by the District and the total cost for the teaching staff should reflect only the portion paid from District funds.

    It appears we need more openness about compensation for teachers. What has or has not transpired in the negotiations over the past months is essentially irrelevant – the issues are what they are today. Get all the data then work on the choices.

    • JustAMom says:

      Dear Taxpayer: You write that the pension plan issue was created by school boards that did not pay the actuarially appropriate amounts each year. The past school boards did properly anticipate the PSERS situation and had a fund that they were putting money into for this purpose. If you recall, two years ago at school board meeting (probably Aug or Sep) Sharon Parker stated that there had been an error on the part of a member of the administration when an electronic filing was made that did not go through to the State. The District did not get the money back for special education which was approximately 650K. This money had to be made up …..and guess where that money came from….the fund for the PSERS! While I see many points on both sides of this negotiation, I do not think it is fair for teachers to be impacted so much for something that was not related to them. The impact of this error is ultimately on the taxpayers and should be spread among all the allocations of money.

  17. JustAMom says:

    This is an interesting interchange. I have to say that I learned some things. I still stand behind my idea about an apples-to-apples comparison chart by the Unionville Times. What could we do to help facilitate that?

    Frank or Keith: Is there a way that you could e-mail Mike your half of the point by point comparison (outside of this discussion) to get the ball rolling? By this I mean, what the District offer is on work rule changes, employee health care contribution, unreimbursed medical expenses, the plan you propose for health care and whatever else like steps rules and other stuff that I don’t understand. Perhaps Mike could interview a Board member and the info provided. Mike could interview teacher/union reps and fill in the teacher’s half of the puzzle. I know this is a lot of work for everybody, but it seems like it would help folks understand better what is going on. This feels like a good thing and a move in the right direction. What do you think?

  18. footballdad says:

    Pay each teacher $125K each and let them pay for all their healthcare, retirement, etc.

  19. Observing says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful analysis, Mr. Murphy. I think the point that gets lost in the discussion of “compromise” and “middle ground” is percisely what you stated in point “3” above. The district has moved off its offer in an effort to compromise and, presumptively, the neutral mediator’s recommendations constitute a “middle ground.” Personally, I think the teacher’s made a mistake voting that down. It appears the teacher’s union is now taking the position that the mediator’s recommendation is now a “starting point” for negotiaitons instead of what it was intended to be – an ending point.

    What I’m not crazy about is the recent tone adopted by the teacher’s union. I read the union negotiator using phrases like “fraudulent numbers” and “conservatives just trying to get reelected” I feel like they have just descended into name-calling. In my experience, the name-calling starts when you no longer have a valid bargaining position.

    • JustAMom says:

      My suggestion is not to dwell on the past or make assumptions about anybody’s bargaining position. The tone is getting better and we have to applaud all parties for this. Let’s keep going forward with positive ideas about what to do next. This is hard for everybody and frustration is a tough thing to deal with.

  20. Frank Murphy says:

    Mike -Thanks for responding to my questions. I really am enjoying the conversation with you and the members of the community forum who post here! What a great way to converse about important issues. Having said that , I can’t agree with a lot of your responses Mike but I hope maybe we can get to a place of mutual understanding:
    First, you refer to a potential tens of thousands of dollars in exposure for teachers if they accept the board’s health care plan. You set this argument up as fact and make it seem we are trying to force a bad plan on them. We are offering a Personal Choice C2-F2-O2 or C4-F4-O2 plan. Look up the details and tell me if it is not a great plan that exceeds what many members of the community have. Can you please describe your understanding of under precisely what scenario a teacher would be faced with such a catastrophic expense as you describe? The Personal Choice plans the Board is offering to the UCFEA are top of the line but if you are only referring to a possibility that a teacher might refuse care from an in-network provider and insist on an out of network provider, I think you should really give the details of your scenario – don’t you? I am curious as to how many of the residents of the District have such health care plans and whether they think it is unfair to ask the UCFEA to have the same type of plan? Again, if I am wrong and I have misunderstood the plan I will reconsider my position – but your argument hasn’t got me reconsidering yet!
    Second, your comment regarding PSERS is interesting. You compare including pension costs as a personnel cost to including textbooks? Really? Pensions still have to be paid for and they still go to the employees, so I don’t see the logic. We don’t blame the UCFEA for PSERS – we just recognize it is an expense tied directly to compensation that has to be considered as part of the total employee cost to the District. Textbooks get tied to educational materials costs; buildings to capital costs. Ignoring the real cost of such pension benefits leads to crisis – refer back to your article on the dysfunction in Washington D.C. on that point. As for what the Legislature has done or what the prior Boards did or did not do, I won’t comment other than to say that I am trying to solve a contract in the here and now with real teachers and real parents and real kids, so if a prior Board didn’t do something right, we just have to try to fix it and move forward. We can’t go back in time and get money from them so I don’t see the relevance, but OK – a lot of people may have messed up over the years. Can we agree that it would be good to not mess up any more?
    Third, as to fact finders report, your logic seems to be that even though the Board moved to the middle, now we should go to 3/4 because the UCFEA rejected the middle position? That thinking would make nobody compromise, which is exactly the opposite of what you are claiming to want. Should we have just said no to the fact finder report and waited to get to the middle? I think what we did was honorable and fair – and at the end of the day that is how I want to walk away from this. As for the Board changing positions, so has the UCFEA – that happens in negotiations. The landscape changes; new information is developed, the months pass. I don’t understand this criticism, sorry. Again, though, I am happy to listen if you want to tell me why changing a position because of changing circumstances is somehow inherently wrong? I will be happy to answer any questions, of course but may not be back on line for a day or two. Thanks again for helping drive the discussion forward and making me – and hopefully others – think about their positions and the logic behind them. Let’s keep the great conversation going!

  21. Ray Farrell says:

    Mike,

    My experience is just the opposite of yours. I find very few parents who know what is happening with the school board and the PSEA. In defense of the parents, most are too busy working hard, running to activities, and raising their families with no time to figure things out. 

    “soccer moms” was my ham-fisted attempt to describe how I feel veteran PSEA union negotiators view most parents. That they are susceptible to mis-information and easily manipulated. I truly believe this is how the PSEA operates.

    I have nothing but high regard for the parents in our school system. To draw a different conclusion than this means I was not articulate enough and for this I am sorry.

    Ray Farrell
    Pocopson, PA

  22. Mike McGann says:

    JustAMom, Keith: I agree that working out an apples to apples comparison is a good goal, but one sticking point is that both sides disagree with the integrity of the other’s numbers. It is something that I would be very interested in trying to present in as fair a way as possible, but would need cooperation from both sides.

    Ray: you need to cool it. I understand your issues with unions and while I’ve personally seen both the good and bad of organized labor, I disagree that it is anything like the sole cause of our current financial mess, but rather one of a number of factors caused by greed, shortsighted management and a failure by almost everyone involved to take a long view.

    And while we could debate those issues (and have), insulting the mothers of some 4,000 Unionville-Chadds Ford students probably crosses the line and, frankly, does more damage to your point of view than to help it. Many of these “soccer moms” as you put it, have been furious at the teachers’ union over what they saw as excessive demands and have only recently begun to turn their fire on the school board over the recent turn in negotiations.

    In my experience, these “moms” (many of whom are dads, by the way) are smart, involved and not nearly so easily manipulated as you portray, otherwise the High School renovation bond issue would have passed easily. Many of these folks are our readers and I expect that they be treated with respect.

  23. Ray Farrell says:

    JustAMom,

    The heck with your “reasonable tone”, what do you think this is, kindergarden play-time.

    Our school district is a microcosm of what has been wrong with our Country for the last forty plus years. Public-sector labor unions like the PSEA have been abusing public law and the public purse strings for generations now.

    I see no manipulation by the school board of any “numbers” as they set a per teacher average compensation package that cannot be exceeded based on district cash flow, future obligation, and basic nuts-and-bolts budgeting.

    Rule number one from of the unwritten PSEA union playbook (used in hundreds of school districts in PA): Misrepresent the facts, sew doubt, and delay conflict resolution under “status quo” laws which allows them no obligation to bargain in good faith.

    Rule number two: Terrify all the soccer moms into thinking we have no alternative but to settle with the PSEA so we can all just “get along” and make cookies together again.

    A line must be drawn in the sand now, otherwise our slow spiral into insolvency will continue and there will be nothing left for future generations but the hollow shell of a once great school district.

    Ray Farrell
    Pocopson, PA

    • Keith Knauss says:

      Your suggestion of a side-by-side comparison of the offers would be helpful. As a minimum we would need the union to submit a costing of their offer. (we’d be accused of bias if the District evaluated their offer) This is basic information relating to the percentage increases given each year for salary and benefits. We’d be able to see whether the increases are 4% as the district says or 1.5% as the union says.
      .
      The District makes it crystal clear how the 4% was calculated. Quite telling is the fact that the union leadership, over the 18 month negotiations period, has NEVER published any costing information on any of their offers or our offers. Just how was that 1.5% calculated?

      • JustAMom says:

        Keith, Thanks for the post. Mike, it would be a real help to the whole community if you could use your investigative journalistic skills and contacts to get the numbers and post them in a side by side chart. The less calculations for each number on either side, probably the better. I read the guiding principles in the masthead about being fair and living in the community. Seems like this is the moment when we need this the most.

    • JustAMom says:

      I acknowledge that I read your post.

  24. Sue says:

    Is it true that it would take an increase of only $40 per household to meet the teachers’ needs? If so, their request does not seem unreasonable at all. Actually, considering my children are attending one of the best elementary schools in PA, this is quite a bargain. Our teachers deserve it.

  25. Ray Farrell says:

    JustAMom,

    As a just a Dad I couldn’t disagree with you more. There are many in the community who applaud the performance of our school board. We appreciate the tough love being meted out to the petulant PSEA who tantrum at the thought of concessions.

    Like in Wisconsin, our elected officials are doing what they can to mitigate the PSEA ponzi schemes that have us on a trajectory to fail for years.

    Our school board is clearly more concerned about the next generation than they are the next election.

    The facts of this contract dispute are readily available and easy to follow.

    Ray Farrell
    Pocopson, PA

    • JustAMom says:

      I believe this School Board has done a good job with most of the things they have undertaken since the last group was elected. I think they are far above and beyond the last Board. They inherited a mess and seem to work hard as far as I can tell. They appear to keep their focus and, for the most part, I have a positive view.

      However, as the pressure mounted on this teacher contract, things have become more and more askew. Mike McGann makes some good points about the lack of strategic thinking on the part of both groups. The teachers have a jack-of-all-trades leader who has a vested interest in scoring big in an affluent district for the state-wide membership of PSEA. What used to be possible for teachers contracts is no longer in this economy even in a well-off district. I do not want to be like Wisconsin and, by the end of today, we will even have a better picture of that whole issue after 40 million bucks got thrown into the recall election by outsiders.

      I want to be like Unionville where we believe most people are honest and hard working and where we value our teachers and our schools. Mike McGann is right that the numbers have been manipulated by both sides for their own purposes….as is what happens in a tough negotiation. Mike is also right that a deal was almost possible and then it wasn’t and things have degenerated since that time. I agree with Mike that the numbers are not straightforward or transparent. I believe that statements on the UCFSD website by the Board have been unnecessarily inflammatory. The same points can be made with a better tone and a whole lot easier to understand. I am not going to bash the teachers or their union and to compare their sincere desire to improve the lives of their membership to a ponzi scheme is offensive at a deep level to me. I want this solved and I think it is clear that the discourse has come a long way since these posts started. We need to continue with a reasonable tone.

  26. Keith Knauss says:

    JustAMom asked, “Why are we going over ‘old ground’ all the time?”
    .
    Mike’s premise in his article was that “any number of people in the community could come up with” a three year deal that “everyone could live with”. I wanted to remind everyone that we’ve done that very exercise without success.
    .
    JustAMom said, “Teachers don’t want 4%.”
    .
    Obviously, JustAMom doesn’t believe our published numbers. The unstated implication is that the District has “doctored” the numbers and is misleading the community. Does anyone really think that 9 school directors, the financial manager and the superintendent would put their reputations at risk by publishing lies?
    .
    JustAMom said, “They [the teachers] are willing to increase their contribution to healthcare costs.”
    .
    That is accurate. However, even taking the increased contributions into consideration the union is still asking for an average of 4% per year for each year of a three year contract. By any measure – comparison the fellow employee increases, comparison to Chester County worker increases, comparison to national educator compensation, comparison to the Act 1 Index, or comparison to the CPI – the union’s request is excessive.

    • Mike McGann says:

      Keith, Keith, Keith.

      My memory is just fine, thank you (at least for a creaky old, 47-year-old).

      Let’s go back to the fact finders proposal (which bears, by the way, little resemblance to the offers currently on the table from the district): A: I whacked the union for not accepting it. B: removal of the half-step seniority provision probably would have closed the gap (based on what was accepted subsequently by the UCFEA) to a deal. And let’s be honest: that was seven months ago — a lifetime in a contract negotiation.

      As for the numbers: both sides have “cooked” them to support their own argument, neither is an entirely fair representation of the fiscal impact. The teachers continue to argue that salaries can be raised without tax impact (clearly false) while the district continues to lump pension cost increases (caused directly by choices made by this school board and the legislature, rather than the teachers) into the overall numbers. i think, too, there are valid questions about the district’s health care estimates.

      The fact remains this: the talks have gone backwards in the last 60 days. What I’ve written here is far from my own personal opinion, but rather one based on weeks of casual conversations in the community.

      Most folks sit in the middle on this, not with those elements of the union willing to strike for a model contract (which — for you UCFEA members reading — a strike would be the biggest tactical error you could make) and not with those seeking to “put the union in its place” a la Wisconsin (an equally poor tactical decision that will make the 2009 BOE elections look like a walk in the park).

      Most worrisome: I don’t see a tactical or strategic end game here.

      In terms of memory, Keith, I would suggest thinking back to 2007 and see the parallels of one point of view overreaching, convinced of the virtue of its position.

      In a year where being an incumbent in any office is going to be the elective kiss of death, ignoring the community’s collective will to get a fair deal done and move on will lead to exactly the kind of elective reshaping of the board we saw in 2009, just not the sort you’ll be happy to see.

      To be a bit Orwellian: winning here might just be losing.

      So you’ll excuse me if I find both the tenor and current strategy a bit of a head scratcher.

      My point remains: this community deserves better.

      • Frank Murphy says:

        Mike – I thank you for your time on this important subject. The School Board negotiating committee would be happy to answer any specific questions you have or to provide any data you may need to analyze this situation. Whether you believe it or not, we are not posturing or trying to make a political statement, but are trying to get to a deal that makes economic sense for the District. We have no axe to grind with the teachers or their Union and we are not trying to score political points. I can tell you – and the entire community – our concern is that if we do not get a fiscally responsible contract we are concerned about program cuts down the road due to having to fund a too expensive contract and not having the revenue to pay for it. Our analysis indicates that agreeing to the contract that the UCFEA is seeking will require significant tax increases and/or program cuts. Perhaps our analysis is wrong. Perhaps we are missing something. Perhaps you or your readers can suggest alternatives – I will listen and I think the whole School Board will. I have been wrong about a lot of things in my life and I could be wrong on this one, so I am happy to hear other voices and opinions both pro and con to get this resolved.

        Now I have a question or two for you: you state that “the board wants to expose teachers and their families to drastically higher financial risk.” Can you please explain this comment as I am certainly willing to listen to anyone in the community who thinks we are not being fair. The Board has not in my opinion ever done anything intentional to expose our teachers to drastically higher financial risk and if that is a result, albeit unintentional, of what we are proposing I agree we may need to reconsider a position. Can you explain?
        Secondly, how does including pension costs in our analysis of what the District has to pay to fund a contract “cook the books”? I don’t blame the teachers for PSERS, but I do understand it is a cost that must be funded.
        Third, how can you say the Board has not taken, or even tried to take, the middle road when we agreed to exactly a middle position by accepting the nuetral fact finders report? What could possibly be more middle of the road than that?

        Again, thank you for your input and for a forum that I hope may lead to a better understanding of some issues. I look forward to continuing our discussion. Frank Murphy

        • Mike McGann says:

          Frank, sorry for the delay in posting your comments — I was out of the office for a bit.

          Now, on to your questions.

          First: risk. Asking employees to accept a maximum out of pocket expense of between $10,000 and $30,000 from the current $2,000 to $4,000 seems excessive. As someone married to a health care provider, I am all too familiar with claims being denied and patients being left with giant bills, even being forced into bankruptcy after a serious illness. This is in a very real sense, a shift of risk to employees. While larger co-pays and even the added hassle of referrals can be justified (depending on the plan and provider), exposing teachers and their families in this manner seems unfair.

          Second: Are you including the costs for the high school bond payments in the contract proposal? Textbooks? The pension shortfall comes directly from school boards and the legislature paying less into the pension plan, essentially running up the credit card. While they represent a fiscal reality — as do the other expenses — it remains unfair to use much beyond the differential, the added pension funds caused by any pay hikes, rather than what has been a longstanding obligation now coming due.

          Third: As I said earlier, I castigated the union for not taking the factfinders’ deal, although I recognize the issue with half-steps.

          That framework is no longer on the table, and the fact is, both sides were close on salary and work rules in May, with only health care the remaining stumbling block. Were the board’s relative positions the same and it was the teachers’ union just clinging to their position on health care, I think much of the public ire would be directed only at them.

          However, since that time, the board has changed its position on a number of issues during the negotiations and it is fair to say that a deal is now further apart than at any time in the talks.

        • JustAMom says:

          Frank: Thanks for your post. I do not believe that the community members have been able to get a clear understanding of the numbers. Apparently, the Board claims that salary demands are 4% per year and the Union says 1.5%. The teachers seem to be asked to make up the money that once was being saved for PSERS, but was used for other things. The UCFSD posting by the Board has three columns on it with different plans. Community members cannot be expected to understand what is what with some kind of self-insured program.

          I’m going to make a suggestion to you and to Mike that would go a long way in helping straighten out the situation. We need a table that clearly presents a side-by-side comparison of both offers (and I can hear somebody now saying that is what was posted on the UCFSD website already). It needs to go though what the latest salary offer was on each side, what the PSERs contribution is on each side, what the healthcare contribution is on each side, what the work rules changes are on both sides and any other sticking points. This needs to be a real “apples to apples” number to number thing without a lot of additional words, commentary or hyperbole. That needs to be printed in the Unionville Times for people to see so that they can understand it as a real side by side comparison.

  27. Observing says:

    “JustAMom” and Mike: it is easy to simply say “find a middle ground and get it done” and call both sides names in the interest of “balance.” Yelling “figure it out!” doesn’t help anyone. I think it’s important to (a) be highly informed on the numbers and (b) make truly constructive comments based upon good information. I find when people get frustrated like this its because they just don’t like conflict, which is natural, but that doesn’t change the underlying facts.

    • Mike McGann says:

      Observing: I actually enjoy conflict (too many years as a journalist — not to mention my time in politics), as you’re about to see. I’m just frustrated that there seems to be no end game here in a process that is running up legal costs, stressing out the kids and further dividing a community that has seen enough strife in recent years.

    • JustAMom says:

      If Moms couldn’t handle conflict they could never get a family raised! My frustration is that it is impossible to get the facts. The Unionville Times has done a great job in this regard so my thanks to Mike a really good effort. The community is tired of all of this. It seems that we almost had a settlement and then we didn’t. Arguments get more mean spirited all the time. We don’t need this. We need more willingness to reach a settlement on both sides and less time spent trying to make a point or play some group against the other.

  28. JustAMom says:

    Why are we going over “old ground” all the time? What is the point? Just so everybody knows who was “right” first? What is the dispute now? Teachers don’t want 4%. They are willing to increase their contribution to healthcare costs. What is the problem now? People are tired of the arguments. We do not need hyperbole or historical details about who said what first or when or how many times. We need a solution and we need it now.

  29. Keith Knauss says:

    Mike,
    .
    I sense you’d like someone to come up with a solution soon. One that is ” tough, but truly fair one that balances the needs of teachers, students, their parents and the taxpaying public at large”. You’d like the “real numbers” and the “the real pension numbers”. You’d like someone to “put together a three-year deal that no one would like, but everyone — taxpayers, parents, teachers and so on — could live with”.
    .
    How short your memory.
    .
    Let’s remember that during a full day in January both the District and the union presented the real numbers, the real health care plans and the real work rules (we published them, by the way) to a neutral third-party attorney skilled in labor negotiations. It was called Fact Finding overseen by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. The Fact Finder took the information from both sides and recommended a compromise. It was a three-year deal that the District certainly didn’t like, but accepted in the interests of labor harmony. It was rejected twice by the union leadership. You had 4 articles in February covering it.
    .
    I’m left scratching my head wondering how you could say, “I probably could put together a three-year deal”, and then add on, “I suspect there are any number of people in the community who could come up with the same basic formula, by the way”.
    .
    If you are really interested in understanding the issues and crafting a solution please invest the necessary time. My door is open.

  30. JustAMom says:

    It seems clear that the parents need to step in here. I mean this both metaphorically and literally. This negotiation does seem to have degenerated into a clash of two kids in a schoolyard where the adults need to step in and stop the bad behavior. The Board seems hell bent on pointing to every single area of disagreement regardless of the importance. The Union seems hell bent on how much time elapsed between meetings as if that is the key concern. To that, I say so what? Get over it. If teachers vote to strike tomorrow, we all suffer. The damage done to this community by the referendum lingers just almost below the surface. Parents need to get involved by going to the meetings and making it known that we believe in our anti-bullying policy. They need to start emailing the teachers and the school board members and demanding that this need to bully each other stop. If the parents don’t step in and demand discipline, our kids and our reputation will suffer and the long term damage to the teachers and district will live on well into the future.

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